The Key To Steve Jobs Was a Lock

The Apple founder Jobs believed the way to create great products was to start with a 100X level person. Sometimes this attitude got him into trouble, but it made Apple the company it is.

Jeff Cunningham
8 min readAug 22, 2023

There’s the “Good Steve,” said biographer Walter Isaacson, and then there’s the “Bad Steve.” So how did Steve Jobs fuse these two warring aspects to create the world’s most admired and most valuable company? The response below is a good indication of what made him so hard to work for and such a pleasure to please.

According to Isaacson, Jobs’ gift of ‘genius’ inspired colleagues and even close family members to tolerate his frequent outbursts of insensitivity. For example, he neglected to say goodbye to his parents after they dropped him off at Reed College (remember, they adopted him and sent him to expensive Reed College on blue-collar salaries). “They had done so much to ensure I could go there, but I didn’t want them around. I didn’t want anyone to know I had parents. I wanted to be like an orphan who arrived out of nowhere.”

Or during his time at Pixar, he terminated employees without severance. When an employee requested a two-week notice, Jobs said, okay, then make the termination retroactive by two weeks. Jobs used to park his Mercedes-Benz SL55 in the handicap spot at Apple headquarters. Occasionally, he would park diagonally, taking up two spots.

A close friend described Jobs as passionately worked up about certain matters — but quick to move on — explaining how mindless he could be about causing hurt. However, he also acknowledged that Jobs tended to become frustrated at conventional rules and would lash out indiscriminately.

In a moment of reflection, Jobs did express regret: “It’s one of the things I feel ashamed about in life. I was not very sensitive, and I hurt feelings.”

I’m (not) a Nice Guy

“Nice guy” wasn’t the legacy Jobs aimed for, that much was clear. But let’s not allow the “bad Steve” narrative to inflate beyond reason. Exaggeration often spices up stories, boosts book sales, and gets the pundits invitations to podcasts. Take, for instance, the tale of Jobs brazenly parking his Mercedes in the handicapped section of the Apple lot. The reality was that there were plenty of unoccupied spaces, a common sight at any shopping center, and Jobs never displaced anyone in genuine need.

Still, was there a reason for his legendary impatience? Perhaps the answer is there was one epitaph he genuinely pursued. Despite lacking interpersonal skills, Jobs had a profound desire to ignite “Alpha” in people. That is Wall Streetese for an order of magnitude increase in performance.

This may seem counterintuitive. Why would he feel the need to be such a turn off because he wanted more out of people? But if you consider Jobs’ background, his reputation for brutish impatience was not such a surprise. Perhaps in a poignant twist for an orphan, getting the right ‘player’ on your team in a competitive race was the fastest way to steer a company back on track. Was that validation for a wayward childhood followed by an astonishing climb to the top?

It would seem highly plausible.

100X Type

This brings us to the 100X theory. Jobs believed that some people, especially engineers, are naturally gifted beyond anything that can be taught or learned. This is true of prodigies in music and math, so software development, which embodies elements of poetry and calculus, should be similar.

I observed something fairly early on at Apple, which I didn’t know how to explain then, but I’ve thought a lot about it since. Most things in life have a dynamic range in which the ratio of “average” to “best” is at most 2:1.

For example, if you go to New York City and get an average taxi cab driver, versus the best taxi cab driver, you’ll probably get to your destination with the best taxi driver 30% faster. So 2:1 is a big dynamic range for most things.

Now, in software the difference between the average software developer can be 100:1. Very few things in life are like this, but I was lucky enough to spend my life doing software. So I’ve built a lot of my success on finding these truly gifted people, and not settling for “B” and “C” players, but really going for the “A” players.

And I found something… I found that when you get enough “A” players together, when you go through the incredible work to find these “A” players, they really like working with each other. Because most have never had the chance to do that before. And they don’t work with “B” and “C” players, so it’s self-policing. They only want to hire “A” players. So you build these pockets of “A” players and it just propagates.

Unlocking Creativity

After a 12-year absence, during which Jobs had left Apple (he was technically demoted and then put out to pasture), he worked on NeXT and Pixar before returning to the company. He walked around Apple to reacquaint himself with the changes since his departure. At the time, Apple was faltering in the face of competition from Microsoft, IBM, and Dell, which were building faster, cheaper versions of Apple's products.

During his tour, he came across a designer who was considering quitting. Surrounding his desk was a heap of prototypes. Among them was a strikingly designed monitor with a graceful teardrop shape, ingeniously integrating a computer's components into a single unit. Jobs perceived the future in that room. He saw the match of art and science and recognized its potential. Without hesitation, he informed the designer that they would work closely together.

The designer's name was Jonathan Ive. He was a 100X.

Foster Excellence

Steve Jobs may not be the greatest technologist of his era, but he could be crowned the most extraordinary technology visionary. Apple was fortunate that its founder possessed this remarkable ability to see how the landscape would play out. But seeing isn't enough.

Jobs had another talent. Fostering innovation was not just about talent; it involved a strategic process. This approach was a cornerstone of Apple's culture of excellence.

It began with a philosophy of creativity, and while he applied it in engineering, it can be helpful in any walk of life. Whether you are a great developer, accountant, sales professional, or nurse, you need space to push boundaries and make mistakes without fear. Only then will you unleash your inner innovator.

Jobs believed "100X" players required daring and courage. They dared to try the new new and had the courage to retry after a minor setback. That could only happen in an environment where the best engineers could make mistakes. He achieved this through a process we call The Creative Protocol.

The Apple founder warned, “don’t bring in the critics too early; they can be idea killers.”

For someone with lousy people skills, Steve Jobs knew how to bring out the best in his staff. If you were especially creative, he gave you a ‘safe space’ where you did the unthinkable, you were allowed to make mistakes. And he would let you keep on making them until you got it right. The results speak for themselves.

While he was alive, he had a secret that teaches us how to turn a small, secondary computer company into a global powerhouse.

Jobs had an innate understanding that certain environments could cultivate his talents, teasing out of his natural ability an uncanny feel for the consumer. This happened in his calligraphy class at Reed College and by sitting at the knew of Lee Clow and Jay Chiat of Chiat Day created the ‘Think Different’ campaign. Later, he invented a space that embraced his unique skills and unconventional interpersonal abilities. In a literal sense, his poor people skills meant he had to birth his own ventures to achieve this — first with Apple, then NeXT, and ultimately, Apple’s revival.

Once accomplished, he was able to apply Apple’s technological and marketing brilliance to create a design hub rivaling the ingenuity of the Renaissance era. This wasn’t exaggeration, considering its value.

So what was his secret?

A simple algorithm anyone can follow: “there are three types of people any time you are working as a team on a creative solution. Start by recognizing that one or two are great designers, a few are problem solvers, and the rest of us are critics.

Problem Solvers

Jobs recognized the value of problem-solvers, which is really what he was. Individuals with the ability to confront challenges head-on, recognize the brilliance in a new product being developed and their flaws, tweak the hell out of them, and find solutions, is the way to technology glory.

Just as there are prodigies in music and math, he believed that engineering, with its blend of technical precision and creativity, harbored specific individuals who were naturally gifted problem solvers. Building a team that combined innovation talents with a drive to make things for the market was vital to Apple's innovation.

Timing was crucial. Jobs knew that creative work needed nurturing until it matured. His Creative Protocol included allowing critics into the process, but only when the concept had been sufficiently developed. The doors to the Apple Design Center were locked, and only the head designer had the combination. Jobs and Tim Cook had to request to be allowed in. It was his way of saying 'hands off' to the peanut gallery who loves to hate a product before they swoon over it later.

Unleash The Market

Jobs was wary of premature exposure because he understood that uninformed, 'dumb shit,' as he called it, could stifle originality. He held the critics back until the right moment and ensured innovative ideas were shielded from "boring modifications." Then once the product was ready, he let them loose to improve the final requirements and harden the team for the market.

Following this protocol, Jobs unleashed unprecedented creativity within Apple by applying a three-step protocol. Jobs encouraged an environment where creative minds could flourish without limitations. He demonstrated that having individuals with 100X potential is crucial for success — but equally is constructing an organization that empowers them to soar while providing a margin of safety beneath.

Steve Jobs and engineers signed Apple computers like Renaissance artists.

He once said, “One of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, talked about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and science, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.” Steve Jobs may not have been the best at relating to other people, but he certainly knew how to solve their problems.